French Business Leaders Urge Voters to Reject Euroskeptic Candidates

By Nick Kostov Features Dow Jones Newswires

French business leaders have taken the rare step of publicly urging voters in Sunday's first round of presidential elections to reject euroskeptic candidates from the ends of the political spectrum, saying they would seriously damage the national economy.

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Polls show a close four-way race between two mainstream politicians--centrist Emmanuel Macron and conservative François Fillon--plus nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and leftist firebrand Jean Luc Mélenchon.

Ms. Le Pen has pledged to pull France from the European Union and the euro. Mr. Mélenchon has said that if the EU won't renegotiate France's relationship with the bloc he would seek a referendum on whether to leave.

"For us there are really only two candidates," said Olivier Duha, founder of customer service firm WebHelp, referring to Mr. Macron and Mr. Fillon. "We have to block the extremists."

Earlier this week, more than 200 French business leaders urged voters to forsake political extremes when they cast their ballots--or abstain from voting altogether.

In an op-ed piece in the daily newspaper Le Monde, the business leaders said a vote for "the extremists"--a thinly veiled reference to Mr. Mélenchon of the far-left and Ms. Le Pen--would set in motion an economic meltdown that would see interest rates explode, the costs of imports soar and foreign investors flee France.

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Compounding the alarm of France's business establishment, Mr. Melenchon has called for higher wages and a shorter workweek, while Ms. Le Pen, an economic nationalist, wants to impose a special tax on foreign workers.

Pierre Gattaz, the head of Medef, France's biggest business lobby, said he was "very alarmed" by the economic programs proposed by Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon.

"Le Pen wants to leave of the euro with all the consequences that we know: devaluation. inflation, a decline in purchasing power," he said. "And with Mélenchon the less said the better."

The public warnings reflect the panic that has spread through business circles here. Traditionally, French companies and business leaders have refrained from taking an open position on political candidates to avoid a public backlash.

"A vote in France is much like your medical records or your bank account, " said Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy. "You don't publicize it."

In a runoff between Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen, the sort of feverish trading that hit markets during the eurozone's sovereign-debt crisis--including extreme volatility in the euro and a selloff in the bonds of weaker members--would erupt, some analysts predict.

Jean-Luc Petithuguenin, chief executive of the recycling firm Paprec, sent a letter to his 4,500 employees urging them against voting for Ms. Le Pen.

"We can choose to quit the euro but we have to explain the risks," he told France Inter radio station. "For my company we're going to inherit EUR150 million ($160.7 million) of debt with zero extra assets."

While the French business establishment is almost uniformly aghast at a possible vote for either the far left or the far right, most analysts still expect a mainstream candidate to make it through to the second round and eventually secure the presidency.

According to the latest public opinion poll by BVA, Mr. Macron stands at 24% and Ms. Le Pen is on 23%. Mr. Fillon and Mr. Mélenchon are tied on 19%.

Mr. Lévy at Publicis hinted that people would pack their bags and move to another country if either the far right or the far left eventually won the race to the Élysée Palace.

"What I've been told is that if Le Pen and Melenchon get through then the big winner would be Air France," he said.

Write to Nick Kostov at Nick.Kostov@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 20, 2017 15:17 ET (19:17 GMT)